Graded on a Curve: Strummin’ Mental, Vol. 1

In the ‘90s, Crypt Records received quite a bit of well-deserved attention through releases by the New Bomb Turks, Teengenerate, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. But the label’s activities in the previous decade are just as interesting, and a huge part of the reason draws from a slew of compilations detailing all sorts of once secret rock ‘n’ roll mayhem that spawned from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Some of the best entries came through a series titled Strummin’ Mental, and anybody thirsting for a taste of the pure youthfulness of early-R&R expression should seek out Volume One.

It was once considered by quite a few that the period falling between the initial rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the mid-‘50s and the eventual appearance of The Beatles and the ensuing madness of the British Invasion was essentially an accumulated span of downtime, an era that in its supposed aimlessness was often summed up as the music’s wilderness years. Elvis was a movie star, Buddy Holly was dead, Jerry Lee Lewis pretty much committed career suicide, Little Richard was tangling with religion, and Chuck Berry was plagued with legal troubles.

These days it’s not a bit difficult to locate numerous examples of uncut R&R action from within this timeframe, though much of it was waxed either by one-hit wonders or via acts that managed to attain no more than regional success. Predictably, even this minor chart activity proved fleeting. Amongst other factors, the challenges of record distribution posed a big problem. For example, the certifiable hotbed of early rock motion that is New Orleans found some of its finest material kneecapped by limited access to the wider listening public, with soon to be classics withering on the vine at the time of their first release.

And from a retrospective standpoint, it’s hard to deny that the stuff that persists in gathering the most attention frequently comes with an easily relatable and often epic story attached. That’s part of the reason why Elvis continues to endure as a household name and it’s definitely a factor in the general lack of renown for an absolutely crucial rock architect like Link Wray (though truthfully, the background of this guitar titan could serve as the impetus for a potentially fine movie.)

Back in the mid-‘80s, Wray joined up with such wilderness period figures as The Trashmen (they of “Surfin’ Bird” and so much more), Esquerita (in a nutshell a more flamboyant Little Richard), The Wailers (Pac-NW proto-garage legends who knocked out the first cover of “Louie Louie”), and Hasil Adkins (West Virginia-based rockabilly nutjob that really has to be heard to be believed) and effectively stuck out like throbbing, heavily bandaged appendages from the assorted synopses of the rock ‘n’ roll narrative.

Naturally, knowledge of The Cramps assisted in acclimating one’s bearings to the existence of all sorts of crazed happenings from after the Day the Music Died and prior to the arrival of those four mop-topped Liverpudlians. Indeed the stuff was out there waiting for discovery, but there was a serious lack of handy primers available to help bring the cognizance of said unkempt subterranean kicks screaming onto the home stereos of curious listeners.

Until the appearance of the Strummin’ Mental series, that is. Those slabs arrived via the shadowy graces of Link Records (a sly doffing of the cap to Wray’s massive influence), but it was always assumed that the party actually responsible for the five volumes of unadulterated early-R&R goodness was Tim Warren, founder of the enterprise known as Crypt Records.

A little earlier in the ‘80s, Crypt had unleashed the Back from the Grave comps, collections of some of the unruliest ‘60s garage material ever put to wax. Upon hearing even one volume from this truly indispensable endeavor, it became impossible to engage with Nuggets in the same way ever again, for the stuff that Lenny Kaye presented generally possessed at least some level of professionalism and refinement in its thirsty and unsubtle quest for R&R glory.

By comparison Back from the Grave was the true heaving and sweaty underbelly of the whole ‘60s teen-rock beast. And along with it, Crypt signed up a few gnarly contempo units like The Wylde Mammoths, The Raunch Hands, and most notably Thee Mighty Caesars, but the label was most appreciated in their early years for the stream of additional compilations they offered, with LPs touching upon such worthy subjects as raw rockabilly (Sin Alley), potent R&B (Talkin’ Trash), off-center novelty junk/general low-brow scuzziness (Wavy Gravy and Monster Rock ‘n’ Roll) and even live-band strip joint music (Las Vegas Grind.)

Some of these records came adorned with the Crypt logo and some did not; those without were credited to appropriate knock-off names like Greasy, Beware, Strip, and as said, Link Records. But the basic look of the albums, flaunting a design that might best be described as gloriously cheapo, was the same; it was a basically a cinch that they derived from the same inspired source. And taken together those LPs had something of an axe to grind.

In total they confronted the idea that the American cultural landscape pre-Kennedy assassination was in any way lacking in inspired rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans, making clear that Wray, Esquerita, The Trashmen, etc. were just the tip of an unruly iceberg. But it was a discovery that many found difficult to acknowledge. If The Cramps had found acceptance by transforming much of the boneheaded beauty of early R&R into a manic, trashy, theatrical bliss, a general notion still nagged over the later-‘50s and early-‘60s that persisted in defining them as somehow subpar.

A solid dose of the Strummin’ Mental discs helped put the kibosh on that mentality in forthright fashion. The first volume collected nineteen concise and ripping slabs from names like The Renegades, The Bounty-Hunters, The Scavengers, The Invaders, The Rhythm Rockers, The Jokers, Johnny & the Volumes, and Rick & the Fairlanes, the anonymity of the whole lot helping to greatly illuminate the fundamental necessity of it all.

For herein you will find a bunch of determined kids, that while maybe entertaining hopes in the far reaches of their minds of some form of fame (and if so, far more likely local notoriety than any sort of nationwide stardom), are nonetheless so caught up in the creation of undiluted rock ‘n’ roll garbage as gold that when taken all together serves as a roadmap to the very pulse of its era’s uncelebrated youth culture.

The lack of any historically relevant names, with the records issued on such unnoted imprints as Fenton, UFO, Tap, Huron, Kiski, and Hart-Van, also lends Strummin’ Mental an air of mystery as it details the steamrolling depth of the early rock impulse. And in the terms of the music’s later development, the songs included here don’t really have anything tangible to say. Or so it might seem at first.

Occasionally a stray holler or word emerges, but otherwise this is a strictly instrumental affair. It communicates its essence not through the eventual norms of righteous protest, raw anger, angsty introspection, or shrewd self-aggrandizement, but in a deceptively cagey non-verbal language that can perhaps be assessed as a form of speaking in code.

That might seem like a stretch, but when Link Wray’s most famous and incendiary instrumental lost its original moniker “Oddball” to become known for all sweet time as “Rumble,” all sorts of anxious hubbub resulted. Banned from the airwaves for its supposed dangers in potentially promoting juvenile delinquency, the song still made the Top Twenty, with Wray even landing on American Bandstand. Young Dick Clark was so nervous he wouldn’t even mention the song by name over the air.

Had the title “Oddball” been retained, it’s highly doubtful the same stir would’ve resulted. The decision to switch to “Rumble” came not from Wray but through Cadence Records. On the advice of either Phil Everly or his stepdaughter, label owner Archie Bleyer changed it; the rationale was that the song sounded like a street fight. And it was a business decision that obviously related a big part of rock ‘n’ roll’s mystique to those ever-present watchdogs of proper behavior.

The influence of Wray figures big on Strummin’ Mental, but so does the sound of instrumental surf at its most basic and guitar oriented. Opening cut “Blowout” by Johnny & the Volumes effectively combines the two, employing the template largely associated with the Ventures/Chantays axis and infusing it with Wray-like heaviness.

None of the bands here are the slightest bit concerned with originality; what’s most important is getting it right and having a single to call their own. To illustrate, The Renegades’ “Exotic” is an obvious rip upon Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” and those unimpressed with the gist of Strummin’ Mental will likely use the song’s boldfaced cribbing to pinpoint the reason for their apathy.

But it’s in how the brazen appropriation and the minor adjustments of authorship exist simultaneously that helps make this album such a total gas. Well, that and some boldly honking saxophones along the way. And The Renegades’ “Geronimo” provides an especially zonked ringer, featuring gunfight sound effects, approximations of whooping Saturday Matinee Indians and a croaking voice enunciating the song’s title in a manner likely nabbed from The Champs’ “Tequila.”

The five Strummin’ Mental volumes were carried over to three compact discs in the early ‘90s, with each installment stuffed with 32 tracks. While they were certainly welcome, there are a couple big reasons why the original LPs remain the best introduction to all this unearthed enlightenment. Firstly, many cuts, some of them quite choice, disappeared from the program in the migration from vinyl to CD.

To be fair, they were replaced by a caboodle of additional unheard (and surely worthy) entries, but it’s still a bit of a bummer that “Troubled Streets,” The Night People’s killer “Rumble”-knockoff, vanished in the fumes. Secondly, there was the matter of presentation; nineteen tracks split over two sides of an LP was just the right dose of this kind of work. The compacts disc versions were an indisputable royal banquet, but in offering so much they also kept driving home a point that was effectively made a little over midway through their running time.

That’s really just a quibble, however. Copies of the Strummin’ Mental comps on either original or reissue vinyl shouldn’t be that difficult to obtain. And if you’re musing over ponying up, partner, why not begin with Volume One? It’ll shed some major light on the rescued detritus of a very different time while emitting the sounds of crude magnificence, and that’s a fine combination in any era.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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